The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza

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The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A complex, cleverly crafted book. It's a translation from Spanish of a story set in ancient Greece, with a parallel modern-day story told in footnotes. Buy if you like complex reading, otherwise borrow.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 314 Date: January 2002
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 0349113866

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I did wonder if this book would be rather convoluted. It's a translation of a book written by a Cuban living in Spain and it's about a Translator working on a text about a murder mystery set in Athens at the time of Plato. There are two parallel stories; the original murder mystery and that of the Translator whose tale begins to bear an eerie similarity to the text being translated.

Heracles Pontor is a Decipherer of Enigmas. His friend, Diagoras, who's a pedagogue at Plato's Academy, asks him to investigate the death of one of his best pupils. Tramachus had apparently been attacked by wolves but hadn't tried to defend himself. Heracles and Diagoras investigate.

The modern-day Translator's story is told in a series of footnotes. It's an unusual literary device - I'm more used to footnotes elucidating a text than telling a separate story - and initially I found it difficult to follow. It's worth persevering though as it's very cleverly done. Occasionally I thought it was cleverness for the sake of cleverness but that's a minor carp. Sometimes the Translator intruded too much into the original story (which was, I confess, my main interest) but generally there's a good balance and that must have been difficult to achieve.

The plot of the original murder mystery is well done. All the clues are there but the solution still came as a surprise to me. I was less convinced by the denouement to the Translator's story. Some readers have found it horrifying: I laughed out loud.

In the original Spanish the book's title translates as "The Cave of Ideas" and I'm surprised this wasn't used for the English translation as it gives a far better indication of the nature of the novel. "The Athenian Murders" is too commonplace, too pedestrian. This is a book which will force you to think and to evaluate. It's as far from being an historical whodunit as it's possible to get. All the atmosphere of ancient Athens its there. Physical details have been carefully researched but it's more than that. The attitudes and ideas are there along with the religious aspect and the cheapness of human life. It's well done but delivered with a light touch and I was left with the feeling of there being a lot more background knowledge which hadn't been passed on.

In places the novel is brutal. I found some scenes quite shocking, particularly where cruelty to animals is concerned. In fairness this is a subject on which I'm particularly sensitive. Brutality to human beings affects me far less and there is a deal of that too. One scene describes sexual activity in some detail but it is in no way offensive. Homosexuality was more evident in ancient Greece and there are hints of this but nothing explicit.

Given the parallel story lines of the book the characters are well-developed. Heracles Pontor is sympathetically portrayed - a fat man with human frailties and a clear-thinking brain. He put me in mind of Hercule Poirot, but that could have been the coincidence of the initials. I was less-convinced by the unnamed Translator, whom I've assumed to be male, but thinking back I'm not certain how I got that impression. All does become clear eventually though.

Far from being unnamed, the real translator of the book is Sonia Sotto, who has achieved the complex task of translating a Spanish text into English which evokes ancient Greece. It's a tribute to her that the book flows so well and is eminently readable.

It's a complex novel. It put me in mind of an onion. Each layer that's peeled off reveals another layer. There are stories within stories and then further themes within those stories. If you're looking for an easy read then this won't be the book for you. You might like to try Susanna Gregory's An Unholy Alliance, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time or Alison Weir's The Princes in the Tower. They're all historical mysteries with a carefully-researched background. On the other hand, if this book does appeal to you then you might like to read Boris Akunin's Murder on the Leviathan, or one of my particular favourites, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind. We also liked The Marathon Conspiracy by Gary Corby. For another translation from Spanish which did impress us, try This World Does Not Belong To Us by Natalia Garcia Freire.

Booklists.jpg The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza is in the Top Ten Books Not Originally Written In English.

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